My family and I journeyed to Valdez, Alaska to celebrate my husband’s birthday with a charter halibut fishing trip. It was in good timing as Fairbanks was under attack from days of rain, which was a God send after weeks of fires surrounding the area. We needed a little sun and a break- so we packed the travel trailer and off we went down the road to a small town only 7 hours away. First impression is that everything in Alaska is far. I think that I have traveled across Texas quicker than I can get from point A to point B in Alaska. The roads are bumpy, the winds are ridiculous through Delta, the gas stations are few and far between; but what is lacking in amenities is well worth it for the views of untouched land.
We opted to stay in one of the only KOA's in Alaska, and the only one in Valdez and quickly realized it was a wonderful decision. Tucked away 5 miles from downtown, the camping ground was nestled between the mountains and with little traffic to drown out the sounds of the trees and wildlife roaming around. We were tired and hungry from the ups and downs of the permafrost roads, so at 8 o'clock at night we found ourselves in the center of Valdez watching the daily catch come in and looking for a restaurant with coffee and food. This is not hard to do in Valdez, plenty of classy food trucks and restaurants lure tourist and locals in with their late hours and fresh seafood. Nothing like eating a black and blue chicken sandwich while watching skilled fisherman gut their catch of the day.
While Nick and Gaberial were there for the fishing, Kekoa and I were on a mission to discover how Valdez was able to survive as a local tourist attraction and how was it discovered. We also wanted to see slippery seals and sea lions and hopefully catch a glimpse of whales and the famous salmon shark. What we discovered was a true testament to survival in Alaska and the heroic stories of its forefathers:
In 1897- Newspapers boasted that there was gold in Alaska and that the "Valdez Glacier-- Best Trail" to find it. What is interesting about this proclamation that brought so many people in was that it was all a lie. Lt. William Albercrombie (Army) described the All-American Route that lured thousands of hopeful gold miners into Alaska, but there is no proof that he ever attempted or saw this route in person. In reality- there was no town, no people, and no route to the gold- just a very large glacier. Numerous men died in the attempt to cross the glacier, but it never stopped the thousands of people from attempting to find the gold. Supplies had to be carried by pull sleds and at the steepest parts it took as many as 20 trips back and forth to pull their gear to the other side. It wasn’t until 1898 that Albercrombie had a trail cut through the Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass, once it was approved as a military trail to Eagle, progress began. What is truly amazing is that this hand cut trail later became the Richardson Highway in 1919 and it was the only viable route to Fairbanks.
This is when the story gets interesting! This is the point in American History where the Railroad was a major factor in all development- and two rival Railroads came to this small town to fight for the rights of building. One man in particular- H.D. Reynolds was the loudest of them all, claiming “his railroad was their railroad”, and the town people invested in his ideas with their life savings. With that money, Mr. Reynolds bought up the town with his money- owning the newspaper, the hotel, the bank, and city blocks. It looked too good to be true! Then, during a wild west moment, there was a shoot-out over the right of way in Keystone Canon, and Mr. Reynolds lost. The other railroad, Alaska Syndicate, moved their operations to Cordova and the Alaska Railroad was completed using a route from Seward to Fairbanks via Anchorage. By 1925, the Army packed up and left, mining was no longer profitable, and with easier access from other ports- Valdez fell to a population of less than 500 citizens. A sadder state of affairs was the Mr. Reynolds left with the citizens money, and was later found to be committed to an insane asylum and the people’s money nowhere to be found.
But the story doesn’t end here- in 1964 on Good Friday, an earthquake registering 8.6 on the Richter Scale and 9.2 on the Moment Magnitude Scale struck nearby lasting over 4 minutes, causing a underwater landslide that in turn caused a tsunami that washing out the town- literally. 114 people died because of that earthquake and the town was condemned when it was realized that it was initially built on unstable ground. That didn’t stop the community though- they just moved the town 4 miles up the road and rebuilt. It was interesting to note that this earthquake did not just affect Valdez, but many Native villages were hit just as hard with the lost of lives, and long-established homes were uprooted for safer areas.
It was beginning to look good for Valdez when in 1973 Congress approved the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to be in their city, and by 1989 there was a solid 3,500 citizens calling Valdez home.
But with all good stories, there must be another twist- and in 1989 on Good Friday again, disaster struck when the Exxon Valdez hit the Blight Reef and dumping 11.2 million gallons of oil. I did the math on this, in current pricing of fuel in Alaska- that is approx.. 32 billion dollars’ worth of fuel. The oil covered over 1,300 miles of coastlines killing hundreds of thousands marine wildlife! Even today, there are pockets of oil still floating around the area. What I did not know, and it floored me, was that the Exxon Valdez was right back in business after the spill, operating under another name as an oil tanker. That is not the worst of the story, the captain of the ship was discovered to have been drinking when the spill occurred and had allowed an unlicensed 3rd mate to steer the ship- causing the spill. Then to add insult to injury, the captain was acquitted of felon charges and was hit with a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service!
While these are sad stories, the town has recovered thanks to its citizens. It is not a booming town, but rather a sustainable town that truly loves its past and its ocean waters. It is not easy to live in Valdez, ask any of the residents, but they are enthusiastic about their home and their way of life.